Premier League English

The Cristiano Ronaldo marriage is over – but it looks like United who want the divorce

For arguably the second time in his career, his club looks better without him.

The first time was after he had left Juventus to rejoin Manchester United. After a stirring win over bitter rivals Liverpool, it’s beginning to look like step by step, game by game, Cristiano Ronaldo is is being distanced from Manchester United – only that it’s not anywhere in the sensational way that he had visualised it.

Given that United’s next home game is against Arsenal on Sunday week, after the transfer deadline, he may have played his final game at Old Trafford.

His nine-minute substitute appearance against Liverpool – including five minutes of additional time – was an inauspicious dalliance at best which produced one off-target shot and hardly anything else worth mentioning.

As expected as always, his arrival on the pitch was greeted with a big cheer, but the focus of attention had shifted elsewhere as he later walked off the field – much of it on the younger, more vibrant members of a United team who had beaten Liverpool in the league for the first time since 2018. A team who, deservedly, strode into the future without Ronaldo.

Earlier this summer, when he made it clear the spotlight was getting a bit too dim for him at United, he had probably imagined being wooed by a long line of suitors and also with United in tow, pleading with him to stay.

Somehow it has not worked out like that. The link with Chelsea quickly fizzled out and there was scant interest from the rest of the elite in the Premier League. There was brief interest from Atletico Madrid before that short fuse was also put out. Needless to say, there was nothing on the horizon in Italy after an unremarkable, in fact acrimonious, spell at Juventus that saw the Old Lady being only too glad to see the back of the gladiator whom they had hoped would get the Champions League quest going again. But that wasn’t how it worked out.

Ronaldo is fast running out of options, to say the least.

The quaint nature of his now waning relationship with United is now beginning to see a host of question marks regarding his immediate future. It is all undeniably through his own doing, one might hasten to add. What has truly changed for him in recent months is his frail relationship with United. Now it suddenly looks like it is no longer about him and where he wants to head to, but more what the club are going to do with him.

This is turning out to be a kind of limbo situation for the Portuguese dynamo although Erik ten Hag still publicly spouts the diplomatic rhetoric of Ronaldo definitely being able to fit into the squad anytime because there is clearly no point undermining a potential asset and a player who wields considerable influence in the dressing room and isn’t at all averse to using it. In short, Ronaldo is straying into uncharted territory now.

To reiterate, his club is actually beginning to look better off without him holding them back, as against Liverpool, they were far superior to any other iteration of the team seen this year without CR7 on the field.

Equally, he is no longer the exemplary professional, the standard for all to follow. Skipping the club tour – even for personal reasons – and not fit enough to start the season, this is not the Ronaldo we know.

Ronaldo may have been a high-maintenance individual but he was always worth the trouble. He led by being the best and most diligent worker, the fittest in the team. First on to the training pitch, last away.

So this season he has two strikes against him already. Seeing Ten Hag’s United in full flight on Monday with a mobile attack pressing in a way Ronaldo simply cannot, may have hardened the resolve of some that there is only one way forward from here. He no longer makes that starting XI.

He seems apart these days, active on social media but not immediately welcoming his former Real Madrid colleague Casemiro to the club – something team-mate Raphael Varane, who has followed the same path from Spain, did within minutes of the deal’s announcement.

There would appear to be an impasse. If Ronaldo was unimpressed at the prospect of Europa League football this season – he last featured in the competition for two games 20 years ago – he will be even less so at the thought that UEFA’s lesser tournament might represent his best chance of starting.

Ronaldo the man for the Europa League – in Europe his reputation still undoubtedly intimidates – is not a role he will relish. Ronaldo the Premier League super-sub, as was his recent position against Liverpool, even less so.

Ten Hag couldn’t have been so beguiled as to seriously believe that Ronaldo could feature in the new United squad and would willingly buck up to play his part in a pressing game, as there is scant evidence of the latter being able to do this so far.

With only about a week left to go before the summer transfer window shuts down, there is still no queue of buyers knocking on United’s door to solve this problem of theirs that is already beginning to weigh down heavily on their shoulders, although one may emerge when the final Champions League line-up is known. There have been some suggestions of a possible romantic return to Sporting Lisbon, although the romance may be dead when he sees vastly diminishing figures on his pay cheque.

Whichever way one chooses to look at it, this was definitely not the exit or the summer Ronaldo had in mind, hence his coyness discussing it. He says he will reveal the truth about his feelings and actions when the transfer window has closed, but we may not have to wait that long.

At Old Trafford on Monday, the picture became a lot clearer. Unfortunately, it just was not the one Ronaldo had imagined he would see.